Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Narcissist's Labyrinth: A Manipulable President

The big reveal of TrumpCare was undermined by Trump himself with yet another angry and wholly unsubstantiated pre-dawn outburst on Twitter. Steve on the serious reasons why this particular madness simply has to stop.

It is an unsettling image: a lonely Donald Trump, awake before dawn, pacing the White House in a bathrobe, perhaps a half-eaten bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken resting precariously on the edge of the Martha Washington High Boy. 

The President is fixed on the flat screen as he puts the remote through its paces: Fox, MSNBC, CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC. Then the President of the United States pauses to glance hurriedly at his Samsung Galaxy to check The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Breitbart. Suddenly a news story flashes on his phone that causes him to seethe with anger and outrage. With ever-growing fury, he compulsively grabs his device and begins feverishly racing with his thumbs. Minutes later, he feels a need to justify the venom in his initial tweet so he doubles-down with a second that ups the ante. After a brief reflectory period, he tweets one last time before falling back, satisfied and spent, on the couch.

This should have been the week that the President was aggressively out on the bully pulpit championing the long-awaited unveiling of signature legislative proposal, Anything-But-ObamaCare. Instead, that ship drifted aimlessly at sea for days – under attack from right, left, and center -- as the President’s spokespersons spent their time on damage control about what was arguably Trump’s most incendiary pre-dawn Tweet Offensive yet: his unsubstantiated smear that President Obama had wiretapped the phones in Trump Tower. Jaws hit desks all over Washington when this most outrageous allegation hit Trump’s Twitter feed on Saturday morning. Trump had accused his predecessor of a criminal if not impeachable offense while apparently clutching only a roll of Charmin for support. 

Indeed, where this President once lionized his unpredictability as a negotiating advantage, we now begin to see unhinged behavior on a predictable basis.  The 5:00 a.m. Twitter vendettas seem to occur more regularly than televised White House press conferences. Even the content of Trump’s angry outburst are predictable. When under attack, Trump has a tendency to invent an essentially identical but inverted narrative about his opponent of the moment. 

When Trump’s lying first became an issue early in the Republican primary season, Trump inverted that idea by simply turning around and pasting that exact charge onto his opponent: “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz. When Trump took heat for refusing to release his taxes, he turned the tables by attacking Hillary Clinton’s financial dealings, branding her as the most corrupt politician in history. In Trump’s first week in the White House, he was pilloried for fabricating “fake news” stories about the size of crowd at his inauguration and for claiming that millions of illegal voters robbed him of a victory in the popular vote. What did he do? He inverted the charge.  He seized upon the phrase fake news to castigate the reporting of any and every news service that portrayed him in a negative light.

Now, as investigators search for evidence as to whether Trump’s staff – and Trump himself – committed a possibly impeachable offense by colluding with the Russian government to influence the U.S. Presidential election, Trump lashed out and accused his predecessor of the exact same thing: an impeachable offense.

The concern now has to be that Vladimir Putin is figuring out how to manipulate these predictable behaviors. It is not hard to imagine how.

First, some observations and inferences about two aspects of Trump's overall behavior: his unwillingness to grapple with complex issues,  and perpetual denial of what is fact and what is fiction.

He appears easily influenced by the last person he has spoken with. He can embrace contrarian positions within minutes. He portrayed Barack Obama as the devil until he actually met him, when he concluded he was “a great guy.” That is, until last Sunday.

Trump’s inability to sustain focus appears similar to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which is often viewed as a constant state of unfocused disengagement exacerbated by frequent distraction. But that is not always the case. Many people with ADHD oscillate back and forth between periods of inattention and mental meandering when presented with information of little interest, which are then followed by intense bursts of sustained hyper-focus on topics that the individual finds to be of passionate interest. Trump hyper-focuses on any and all information about his personal brand, but bores easily when confronted with the gritty details of policy.

If there is a defining character to Trump’s persona, it is his selective embrace of information. Any news report that reinforces his sense of personal grandeur or validates his sense of victimhood is greeted, repeated, and retweeted without a moment’s hesitation. No fact checking, no running it by lawyers, no policy wonks, and not even marginally literate proofreaders. He eagerly accepts as truth any and all rumors and overt falsehoods he perceives to be brand-enhancing, and he dismisses as “fake news” anything that tarnishes his brand.

Combine Attention Deficit Disorder with Trump’s unconcealed narcissism, and you have a reasonable coherent structure in which to interpret his behavior. Trump is capable of intense focus on the subject that most fascinates him: how much he is loved and admired in the public eye. Conversely, Trump appears to have little time for the intense policy and intelligence briefings that are essential to the normal function of the executive branch. His very recent discovery that healthcare is challenging (“nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated!”), and his assertion that daily security briefings seemed “unnecessary,” speak to his tendency to glaze over when presented with topics he is not interested in and finds intellectually overwhelming. 

The model of the Attention Deficit Narcissist does neatly weave together the many threads we see in his Presidential behavior leading up to last Saturday morning’s journey up shit’s tweet without a paddle.

·         He is intensely focused on the news services, because he knows that these organizations in aggregate curate his public persona. 

·         His narcissist’s need to be universally loved means that he does not merely watch Fox or Breitbart, but that he will be equally – if not more – consumed by the “unfair” coverage he gets on the “fake news” organizations like CNN, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, ABC, The Washington Post and The New York Times.

·         The need to constantly monitor his personal brand in the face of nonstop saturation media coverage is such an overwhelming task that he has no time or focus left to grapple with the real substance, policy, details, and facts required to do his job.

·         When his personal brand is threatened by a person, news story, or organization, his need to feel superior is so overpowering that he will invert his own liabilities and invent fantasies in order to glue them to his opponent.

With the narcissist's certainty, convinced that his "gut instinct" is always right, he is incredibly vulnerable to foolish, ill-considered actions when he is alone and unsupervised at 4:30 a.m. When a negative news story comes across at this hour, he is a powder key to a news wire match. 

Taking a step back from it all, it is possible to view Trump as a man wandering in an overwhelming maze, operating with no map and no goal, only with a ferocious drive for self-preservation that is measured by how highly he is regarded by others. He lunges for the random tidbits that reflect positively on him, and casually dismisses all criticism, all with indifference what is actually true and what is not.  

Call it the Narcissist’s Labyrinth. He wanders through his days acting only on the information that has freshly arrived from his environment, needing to be viewed as the greatest ever at that instant in time. Presented with information – substantiated or not – of person, places, or things that reflect well on him, he immediately endorses the source. Presented with information – substantiated or not – that undercuts or criticizes him, he attacks. Immediately.

Which brings us to the real problem: Trump in the Narcissist’s Labyrinth is an entirely new form of security risk to the United States of America.

Let’s say you are a certain Russian dictator, and your goal is to destabilize the NATO alliance that prevents you from – ahem – “annexing” certain independent nations that were once part of your grand Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Your goal is to drive a deep wedge of mistrust between once deeply intertwined allies to weaken the alliance.

Perhaps you start by faking a recording that you will attribute to Angela Merkel, in which she is “quoted” as saying that she thinks Donald Trump does not understand the complexities of Europe, and that rather than asking Germany to pay more for NATO, the United States should be paying more to European countries to manage the flow of refugees pouring out of the Middle East triggered by the misguided military foray of the United States in Iraq.  

Pop this story onto the newsfeeds at 6:00 a.m. in Frankfurt, ensuring that it will gain critical mass in the right wing media by 4:30 a.m. in Mar-a-Lago.

By dawn’s early blight, the President of the United States has launched a Twitter fusillade against the German leader. Here's what I imagine:

Merkel = horrible! Germany immigration catastrophe! Merkel pays more for NATO or US pulls out. Germany = overpriced cars and steal U.S. jobs. No friend of U.S. #So sad.

By the evening news cycle, the thoroughly offended population of Berlin is out on the streets carrying signs saying "Scheiss-Trump" or, worse still, "Amerika ist eine grosse Null."

And somewhere in the Kremlin, it’s Nastrovje-time.

This little game of Russian Roulette Twitter is not for the faint of heart. There’s a scenario to be imagined in which fake news is spread about Kim Jong-Un which results in the destruction of 60% of the life forms on Earth.

Of course the danger of manipulating this ADHD narcissist is not restricted to his lonely pre-dawn hours. This man is vulnerable to it at any point in his travels through the Narcissist’s Labyrinth. Think about this: all Steve Bannon has to do to get his way on anything is call over to his buddies at Breitbart and plant a fake story. Bannon is battling for power with Reince Priebus? I can see the Breitbart headline now: “Drunken Priebus tells dinner guests: ‘I’ve seen it, and it is tiny!”

Trump’s Saturday morning tweet about President Obama was a moment of clarity; a time when you realize that the game had changed.

It is time to stop thinking of “fake news” as simple inaccuracy on points of fact or error in conveying information.

“Fake news,” Bannon-style, is full-on propaganda. It is when people intentionally conjure and convey falsehoods in order to achieve very specific political objectives.

Most times you hear the word “propaganda,” you worry about how a government can use propaganda to manipulate its people… and there is no shortage in this White House of savage perversions of the truth in order to influence an outcome.

But with Donald Trump, the real worry is actually even greater.

For a man wandering in the Narcissist’s Labyrinth, the grave problem is how easily the propaganda borne upon fake news sources can be used to manipulate the President of the United States.

And tonight he will be, once again, alone with his KFC and his Samsung Galaxy, the fuse waiting to be lit.

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